Writing a Holiday Film . . . (Thanksgiving Edition)

by Jason Hellerman - updated on November 17, 2020

Holiday weeks and weekends are some of the busiest at the box office. People love to gather with their families, stuff their faces, and head out for some entertainment. More often than not, holiday weekends are peppered with tie-in releases where each film is set during the particular holiday at hand. When writing a script, you want the time and place to matter. For holiday scripts, the season and day function almost like a character in the film - and can be utilized to explain zany actions, set pieces, and time locks for the plot.

Let's check out some Thanksgiving movies to see how they use the holiday to help their screenplays!

The Journey Film:

Typically, the journey film involves one or more characters on a wild adventure to get home. Each of them uses the holiday as a time lock, or a goal the leads must accomplish by a certain time. Whether it's a promise they made to a spouse, a deal for money, or a favor, these movies make their characters suffer through bad transportation, assignments, and interesting bit characters trying to accomplish their missions.


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - for my money, the best Thanksgiving movie out there. John Hughes' comic masterpiece stars Steve Martin as a businessman trying to get home to his family and John Candy as the guy thrust onto him through happenstance and car rental. It's a classic in the genre and flows perfectly from set piece to set piece as the clock winds down for Martin's character.

Scent Of A Woman - Martin Brest directs Chris O'Donnell and Al Pacino (who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance) in this great holiday movie. It's Thanksgiving and O'Donnell's Charles Simms must babysit blind, gruff, and suicidal Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade. Slade has other plans and sweeps Charlie away for the weekend - each man helping the other forget the trouble that lies before them. The holiday only serves as a backdrop here and doesn't have a ticking clock (though the movie does - no spoilers here).

Dutch - A family film that combines the drama of the journey with the comedy of the dysfunctional family. Again, Thanksgiving is the excuse for Ed O'Neill to pick up his girlfriend's kid to bring him home. Also penned by John Hughes, but directed by Peter Fairman, this is definitely a movie for the whole family.

The Dysfunctional Family Film:

A tried and true version of the holiday film that can either appeal to the whole family or be only suitable for adults. Everyone has a crazy story about their family and thus many screenwriters have sat down to type them out to appeal to the widest audience. These stories usually involve the main character either hosting the event or arriving home after a long time away. These movies are rife with exposition but you'd never know it because most writers hide it behind "catching up." They are usually about love, togetherness, and accepting your family for who they are.


Hannah and Her Sisters - a Woody Allen masterpiece, this script capitalizes on intense dialogue, latent sibling jealousy, and comedic drama. An interesting twist, this movie is bookended by Thanksgiving meals, with the real meat of the story (pun intended) occurring the year between.

The Ice Storm - Ang Lee's breakout hit is a rare offset of the holiday movie - a period piece. Set in 1973, this movie capitalizes on the nostalgia of the times to tell the story of a family that is crumbling (like a lot of America at the time) and focuses more on the dramatic aspects.

Home For The Holidays - a star-studded adventure and traditional holiday film. Comedy, drama, and lots of fun as the story of Holly Hunter's homecoming gets overshadowed by her wacky family. Robert Downey Jr. steals many of the scenes as her brother and they all have an emotional arm in time for the cutting of the turkey.

The Action Film

One of the most fun ways to use a holiday is the action film. Action films have their own rules to live by and don't always have the ability to create a depth of world. Holidays help make the characters more relatable and give an "everyman" quality to many of the protagonists.


Free Birds - even though it's animated, it takes time travel and action to new heights as two turkeys try to stop the first Thanksgiving. It's a cute actioner with lots of fun characters and stakes that are both fun and holiday dependent.

Four Brothers - A more traditional action film where Thanksgiving takes a back seat to four guys trying to get revenge. It takes some pieces from the dysfunctional family but ultimately is about ass kicking, to turkey.

Erudite Film Snob's Pick:

There's one in every family like there's one in every film list. The movie that "fits" in the holiday movie category . . . kind of.


The New World - Terrence Malick's retelling of the Pocahontas story is beautiful, captivating, and breathtaking. She helps settlers grow corn, save John Smith's life and there's even a Thanksgiving scene . . . kind of.

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